The Cape Floral Kingdom
WILDLIFE AT ITS BEST
Words: Lukas Loose
A colourful carpet of flowers covers the mountainous area, the shapes of their blooms exotic and unique. Snakes and lizards sneak through the grass and strangely patterned frogs swim in the rivers and lakes. What looks almost like a foreign planet from some science-fiction movie is located right on Cape Town’s doorstep: the Cape Floral Kingdom.
Unique in every aspect
South Africa has the third highest level of biodiversity in the entire world, yet the Cape Floral Kingdom, which is located in the 553,000 hectare area from the Cape Peninsula up to the Western Cape, is even more special. The Floral Kingdom occupies only 6% of South Africa but it contains over one third of the country’s flora. In fact, the Table Mountain National Park, which is only a part of the Floral Kingdom, has a bigger flora variety than the entire British Isles or New Zealand. From its 9,600 plant species 68% are endemic, which means that they only occur in this particular area and nowhere else in the world. The Cape Floral Kingdom is only 0.05 % of earth’s land area, but it contains 3% of the planet’s plant species.
There are 166 different vegetation units in the Cape Floral Kingdom containing a huge variety of plants. The majority of those plants are endemic and 60% of the flora in the Floral Kingdom can only survive in this very specific area and nowhere else in the entire world. This makes the Cape Floral Kingdom unique, indeed, it is one of the healthiest ecosystems worldwide.
The main vegetation type, covering a major part of the Floral Kingdom, is called ‘fynbos’, which contains 80% of the area’s plant life. The relatively dry ground is suitable for the fynbos, therefore it is extraordinary that such a great variety of plants are able to grow here. The Cape Floral Kingdom is as rich as a rainforest concerning the diversity of its plant life, especially when you consider it is on a continent which has landscapes dominated by deserts.
The different vegetation units provide habitats for many different kinds of animals. Fish and amphibians share the rivers and lakes and the reptiles and mammals live on land but the air is almost crowded by birds. There are 23 indigenous freshwater fish species living in the Cape Floral Kingdom, such as the smallmouth bass and the rainbow trout, making the local fish fauna relatively poor. Nevertheless the rivers in the Floral Kingdom are unique; the endemism contains 15 of the 23 species. Frogs are the major part of the amphibian species. The Cape Floral Kingdom is home to many rare frog species. There are 50 different frog species of which 27 cannot be found in any other environment on the whole planet. The reasons for that are the unique local climate, the high amount of different habitats and the long evolutionary history of the region. A great variety of reptile species lives in the Cape Floral Kingdom. 148 of the 411 reptile species in South Africa are found here due to the diverse environment and the reptiles ability to utilise different habitats. The amount of mammal species is relatively low, because the European settlers who came to the Western Cape in the early 1,600, had a huge impact on the local mammal populations due to their hunting lead to the extinction of many animals. The unique and diverse flora of the Cape Floral Kingdom offers ideal habitats for a high amount of different animal species.
Right underneath Table Mountain you can see the diversity of plants and animals with your own eyes in the Kirstenbosch Gardens.
Both the urban development and climate change are serious dangers to the Cape Floral Kingdom. For instance, Cape Town´s city expansion interferes more and more with the vegetation of the Floral Kingdom and threatens the plants as well as the animals. Their habitats become smaller, for that reason the amount of animals decreases and the number of endemic species rises. Another danger for the local vegetation is fire, especially in summer when, the climate is hot and dry fires can spread very easily. Most of them are caused by the heat, but some are caused by humans as well. For example when someone throws a cigarette on dry grass it can cause a huge fire which will destroy significant parts of the flora, without which the plants and animals cannot survive so fire impacts both plants and wildlife. If someone gets caught setting a fire, even accidentally, they can get seriously fined. The worst human-caused threat for the vegetation of the Floral Kingdom is agriculture. New, chemical fertilisers and crops can destroy the sensitive plants and change the components of the soil for a very long time, which again affects the animals. But of course, there are natural threats too. A massive danger for the flora and fauna of the Floral Kingdom are alien species. According to the Western Cape Biodiversity Review released by Cape Nature Scientific Services the expression ‘alien species’ contains plants as well as animals of all kinds that originally do not develop in that area. However they are able to due to the many changes in the environment. These alien species are dangerous, because they are in the same habitat as the localised species which leads to a competition between both species. In many cases the alien species are more resistant and win that competition. In order to avoid that, the Cape Action for People and Environment has established an alien species management programme. It is basically about controlling the number of alien species and their impact on the localised species. As soon as the impact increases rapidly, measures of protection will be initiated.
Because of the city expansion of Cape Town and global warming it is difficult to say what the future of the Cape Floral Kingdom looks like exactly, but the unique diversity of the flora and fauna will remain. Nevertheless we have to be very careful not to destroy this kingdom which is one of the last ones in the entire world.
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